Basketball and Startups

Reading time ~4 minutes

I’ve played or watched basketball pretty much my entire life. At 5 I would go in the back yard and dribble a ball with my right hand up and down the stairs and then do it with my left. I would also stay up late watching Chick Hearn tell me to put the butter back in the fridge because Kareem and Magic had this one in the bag. Recently, there’s been a shift in the game from teams using a huge center like Shaq, Wilt, or Kareem to teams playing what’s known as “small ball” or having a bunch of smaller, quicker players that can hit long range shots with great accuracy. Why would coaches and teams change the formula from what’s been successful for decades to a more risky, new style of play? I found this question really interesting. I hate to be hacky but they are truly ‘disrupting’ the game much like startups try and disrupt established markets. I decided to dig and look for other similarities between this new style of play and its correlation to startup mantras.

##Disclaimer: No Brad Pitt First off, this is not going to be a Moneyball post. I’m not going to cite a lot of resources or stats. It’s purely speculative and observatory. My viewpoint stems from a lifetime of playing and watching basketball and working at startups for a good part of my professional career; nothing more.

Small Ball

If the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors showed the world anything, it’s that a group of average (NBA) sized players that take risks and go fast can beat any team on any night. Their style of basketball which included taking long 3-point shots regularly, pushing the ball up the floor, and playing in-your-face defense. They also mostly played without their huge, 7 foot, center Andrew Bogut. Playing without a center is somewhat of a departure from your typical championship strategy. For decades NBA championship teams relied on their “Bigs” (Huge Sasquatch-esque Giants) to clog up the area around the basket and slow down the game. They were also tasked with taking “high percentage shots” which were usually near the basket. This strategy worked pretty well for a very long time. However, as the Golden State Warriors showed, with the right team makeup, coaching, and skilled players it can be beat.

Taking Risks

One of the noticeable shifts in teams that adopt the “Small Ball” game plan is that they’re not risk adverse. Bigger risk, bigger reward; these teams will jump passing lanes on defense and shoot the ball from long range for extra points if they need to. The key startup takeaway is that they’re not afraid to go for it. No analysis paralysis here. They trust in themselves to make the big play time in and time out. By putting themselves on the line day after day their confidence increases and they’re able to perform under pressure. If they miss a shot then they shrug it off, learn from it, and try to rectify their mistake on defense. It’s better to take a chance and miss than to hold the ball until the shot clock expires or, worse yet, never set foot on the court.

Luck & Skill

Many times growing up I would play HORSE with friends. I may hit a tough shot to which my buddy would clamor, “LUCK!”. He’d try to get in my head with some weak trash talk but the truth of the matter is that I spent countless hours practicing shots, perfecting my form, and competing in live games. Have I been lucky in situations? Absolutely…but I also had a good foundation built to draw from.

You need skill AND luck to be successful as a startup. Having an awesome team is a huge part of what will make you successful. This will be the lion’s share of how your destiny as a startup manifests. But, behind every startup is a story of a chance encounter, a last minute Hail Mary, or some serendipitous moment that contributed to their success. To be a champion you need to have both. There’s definitely a benchmark that you need to hit skill wise to be able to participate. Once you’ve hit that benchmark or hired people to fill the gaps, the rest lies in your passion and execution…with a dash of luck of course.

Momentum & Speed

The most successful startups are the ones that can keep their momentum or inertia going the longest. That initial buzz that you get when you first start prototyping a new idea is intoxicating but as time passes and obstacles arise it can fizzle out. The startup founders that truly never stop going are the ones that are successful. Small ball offers teams the chance to build that momentum and keep it topped off. Skilled players are able to successfully take risky shots and make big plays on defense to keep their team charged up and confident. Basketball and business are both games of runs. You’ll have an ebb and flow of good things happen as well as bad. You have to have confidence in your game plan, skills, and team mates to make sure that momentum never wanes.

Putting It Together

What did we learn here? If we move fast, take risks, have a skilled team, and are lucky then our startup should be successful? That’s certainly part of it. In the startup world you’ll also need to shorten the customer feedback loop, offer amazing customer support, sell something that people want to buy among other things. This was definitely a fun analogy to make though and I do think there are some lessons to be learned here regarding disruption, taking chances, and moving fast. What do you think?

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